Shane Lee was confused. The USC linebacker walked out of Monday morning meetings this week and saw the Trojan statue near the center of campus covered in shimmering silver tape pulled taut. Lee, who transferred to USC this offseason from Alabama had to turn to backup quarterback Miller Moss for clarification.
"I thought UCLA did it or something," Lee said. "They told me it's just for protection."
Lee knows about Auburn's Toomer's Corner, the Iron Bowl and what SEC disdain for another team looks like. But the mild-mannered linebacker is new to the Pac-12's marquee rivalry. He's not the only one. With a brand new head coach in Lincoln Riley, a new coaching staff and more than 40 transfer players, the usual disdain between the two teams has felt tempered this week.
"We're not doing anything honestly too specific with this rivalry and not to discount it in any way," Riley said. "We've acknowledged that it is a rivalry game. There's a lot of history behind it. It's going to be a great game to play in. But past that, I think we're really zeroed in on what we believe is going to help us play well, and that's where our focus is going to be."
USC's approach to the game has been largely matter of fact. To hear players -- mainstays who have been there for five seasons to those who are brand new -- talk about it, there is excitement, but nothing close to determined disdain for UCLA.
West of downtown Los Angeles, there was at least one player who wasn't shying away from providing any bulletin board material. Over five years in Westwood, Dorian Thompson-Robinson's filter has only dissipated as his confidence has risen. When it comes to USC, he's long past the point of holding back.
"Obviously we hate those guys across town," Thompson-Robinson said on Monday. "There's definitely a bitter feeling toward those guys."
Institutional antagonism has found its way deep into Thompson-Robinson's vocabulary because, unlike most USC players, he's revved up for this game five times and, after Saturday, played in it four times. But if getting into a war of words was the goal, USC players did not engage.